Clutch at the finish
TAMPA, Fla. -- Remember the utter ineptitude of West Virginia's offense during most of last season? Well, it was back in full force Thursday night. Through the first three and a half quarters of an epic contest with South Florida, the WVU offense scored all of two field goals.
Then in the final nine minutes, that offense did what last year's seldom could -- it made up for all the mistakes.
The Mountaineers overcame a 27-20 deficit in the final minutes, finally getting a clutch 26-yard pass from Geno Smith to Stedman Bailey in the final seconds.
That set up Tyler Bitancurt's 28-yard, game-winning field goal on the last play to give the Mountaineers an improbable 30-27 win over South Florida at Raymond James Stadium.
The bottom line? Well, that remains to be seen because No. 22 West Virginia (9-3, 5-2 Big East) is still a win away from its first BCS bowl berth since beating Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2007 season. Unfortunately, West Virginia has no control over that one last game.
Cincinnati (8-3, 4-2) plays at home at noon Saturday against Connecticut. If the Bearcats win, it will forge a three-way tie at the top of the Big East standings between WVU, Cincinnati and Louisville. In that event, West Virginia is virtually guaranteed to get the league's automatic BCS bowl berth because it should be the league's highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings that will be released Sunday night.
If Cincinnati loses, though, West Virginia will finish in a two-way tie for the title with Louisville (7-5, 5-2), which completed its season last week by beating South Florida. And while there is something to be said for a co-championship, the tie-breaker in that scenario won't go WVU's way. Louisville will win it based on its 38-35 win in Morgantown Nov. 5.
And hey, plenty of good seats remain at Paul Brown Stadium.
"Yeah, I guess I could go and root for them,'' said West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller, who is from Ohio and has plenty of friends and former high school foes playing for the Bearcats. "But I think I'll just stay home and watch it on TV.''
And after Thursday night's win, Miller and the Mountaineers all deserve a bit of a rest. In a game that had enough emotional and momentum swings to last a season, West Virginia got all of the ones at the end.
With just over nine minutes to play, the Mountaineers seemed left for dead. They had led most of the game despite offensive problems not seen all season. Tavon Austin returned a kickoff for a touchdown, much-maligned cornerback Pat Miller returned an interception by B.J. Daniels for a score, but the offense was just pathetic. Even Bitancurt's two first-half field goals were little due to the offense. On one, the Mountaineers got the ball at the USF 5-yard line after Willie Milhouse blocked a Bulls punt, but lost a net yard on three plays and a penalty. The other came at the end of just 41-yard drive.
And Daniels, after an awful start in his first action since suffering a shoulder injury two weeks ago, was warming up. He'd led the Bulls back to a 20-all tie when he snuck in from a yard out with 10:01 to play in the game.
And then the WVU offense made its worst mistake. On the next play from scrimmage after the Daniels TD, Smith tried to get the ball to Austin on a screen pass and JaQuez Jenkins stepped in front of it in full stride, caught the ball and ran it in from 28 yards for a pick-six and a 27-20 lead.
Austin said it was his fault for running the wrong route. Smith disagreed.
"I just threw a bad pass and didn't see [Jenkins],'' said Smith, who would finish the night 23-of-35 passing for 237 yards, his second-lowest passing total of the season behind a 218-yard effort in a snowstorm at Rutgers. "But we still had nine minutes left and that's more than enough time to get a score.''
As it turned out, it was exactly enough time to get two.
West Virginia drove 77 yards in 11 efficient plays and got the last five yards on a touchdown run by Dustin Garrison with 5:09 to play to tie the game at 27. Along the way they converted a fourth-and-1 with a 9-yard Smith-to-Bailey pass and a third-and-16 with the help of a personal foul penalty on the Bulls. Garrison ran 16 and 5 yards on the final two plays.
"They backed their linebackers up a little bit to protect against the pass,'' said Garrison, who had 32 of his 87 rushing yards on that drive. "That's when you attack them.''
Still, things looked bleak for the Mountaineers when after playing exceptionally well on kickoff returns all night they gave up a 52-yarder to Lindsey Lamar after the tying touchdown. USF took over at the WVU 41 and seemed destined to run down the clock and get a chance at a winning field goal.
But Daniels was stripped of the ball on a keeper in the middle by Najee Goode and Doug Rigg recovered for the Mountaineers and their own 25. That was with 3:02 to play and gave WVU new life against a team that has made it a habit of losing late leads this season.
"I was just trying to wrap him up and make a good tackle, but the ball came out,'' Goode said. "And then I looked down there and the guy on our team one hand actually recovered the ball. That's great.''
Rigg has played the second half of the season with a heavily bandaged hand because of a broken bone.
Still, a West Virginia offense that had put together just one drive all night needed to go 50 or so yards to get into field goal range. They did so slowly and with just 13 seconds remaining faced fourth-and-10 at the USF 42, out of field goal range and timeouts.
But instead of going toward the sidelines, Smith threw a strike down the middle that a diving Bailey snared at the 16. The clock stopped with six seconds to play to move the chains and that's when it got really interesting.
Bailey remained on the ground for a moment, either injured or perhaps thinking he should fake one. But that wouldn't work because by rule an injury at that point would have forced officials to run 10 seconds off the clock and the game would have been over.
So WVU tailback Shawne Alston rushed down to Bailey as the chain crew was moving and pulled him up off the ground. Smith and the rest of the offense got down the field in time to line up and spike the ball with three seconds to play.
"I didn't know if he'd hurt his shoulder or what,'' Alston said of Bailey. "But I knew I had to get him up and get lined up.''
It left Bitancurt a full 40-second play clock to line up and kick a 33-yard field goal. It became a 28-yarder when South Florida had 12 men on the field and tried to run one off. The Bulls called their only remaining time out to try to ice Bitancurt, but his kick was perfect.
Bitancurt immediately started running around in circles, not sure of what to do after kicking the second game-winner of his career, the first being his boot to beat Pitt two years ago.
And now West Virginia will spend today and much of Saturday not sure quite what to do, either. A BCS bowl berth is out of the Mountaineers' hands. Now it's up to Cincinnati, which isn't playing for a BCS berth but does have a share of the league title at stake.
"Cincinnati's a good team. They're well coached,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They don't need our words of wisdom to want to win the game and be co-Big East champs. I think they'll be playing pretty hard.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com.